What do frogs and elephants have in common? At first glance, it might seem like these two creatures are worlds apart, but a team of biologists has recently described how this unlikely duo actually share a deeply interconnected bond in the ecosystem of southeast Asia.
If you come across the rain-filled footprint of an Asian elephant, there’s a surprisingly high chance that it will be filled with tadpoles and frog eggs. This is because these deep grooves provide the amphibians with the perfect nutrient-rich refuge during the dry season. Furthermore, the trail of footprints might even serve as stepping stones for the young frogs to make their way across the land towards other frog populations, like an inter-lake amphibious highway.
Reporting in the journal Mammalia, researchers observed this behavior in Myanmar's Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary. They discovered at least 20 water-filled elephant tracks containing frog eggs between 2016 and 2017. In several instances, they discovered numerous footprints in a single trackway that contained frog eggs and tadpoles of the same species.
They note that elephants are widely recognized as “ecosystem engineers,” known to play a vital role in modifying vegetation through trampling and seed dispersal, as well as converting large amounts of plant biomass into dung that introduces nutrients for the wider ecosystems. Many other creatures take advantage of elephants' role as ecosystem engineers, such as smaller plant species that are able to thrive in gaps of the forest that have been trampled down by elephants. Equally, piles of elephant poop provide food for a range of amphibians, beetles, bugs, and other small invertebrates.
Not only is this discovery a clear insight into the incredible complexity of nature, but it also underlines how the conservation of different species is a lot more interwoven than might first appear. After all, if the Asian elephant becomes further threatened by habitat loss and climate change, then it’s likely that these amphibian species will also suffer too.
"Elephant tracks are virtual condominiums for frogs. This study underscores the critical role wildlife play in ecosystems in sometimes unexpected ways,” lead author Steven Platt, Associate Conservation Herpetologist with WCS's Myanmar Program, said in a statement. ”When you lose one species, you may be unknowingly affecting others, which is why protecting intact ecosystems with full assemblages of wildlife is so important."